Category Archives: running

Garmin vs Apple Watch: why I switched

I was a smartwatch holdout for many years, on the basis that the short battery life would be annoying (my previous watch had a 10 year battery) and that the utility of a smartwatch is limited; mainly I just need to know the time. The big feature of a smartwatch of course is health tracking but that was not something I felt I needed.

Two and half years ago I succumbed and bought an Apple Watch 7, partly to see what I had been missing, but it also nearly coincided with taking up running.

Apple Watch during a run

I used the Apple Watch from mid-2022 until January this year, to track my runs and monitor my fitness. If you are a runner you will know that you want to track your pace and distance as part of training, and if you have any interest in the data and science of running, then other things like heart rate zones, V̇O2 max and so on.

There is also the matter of listening to music while running. I enjoy this, though earbuds are controversial because of the need to pay attention to your surroundings especially on roads with traffic. I am a fan of bone conduction headphones which let you listen without blocking your ears at all; and UK Athletics, the official body for running, permits bone conduction headphones in races at the event organiser’s discretion.

The integration between the Apple Watch and iPhone is not as smooth as you might expect when it comes to music, or perhaps it is just a hard problem. If you have headphones paired to the iPhone you can control the music from the watch, but you will not get announcements about your pace and distance progress. The solution is to pair the headphones to the watch and not to the iPhone. Then you get both music and announcements, by default every km or mile (depending on preference) you are told your pace. There is also a buried setting that lets you set a playlist for workouts, that starts automatically when you start the workout and can play in random order. In case you have not found this setting, it is in the Watch app on the iPhone under Workout – Workout Playlist.

That all sounds good, but I gradually got frustrated with the Apple Watch for running. Here are the specific issues:

Starting a run (or other workout) is a matter of pressing the side button, selecting workout, scrolling to the workout you want (usually Outdoor Run for me), and tapping. Depending where you tap, you may be asked what type of run you want, open, goal-based, route, or all. Or it may just do a brief countdown and start. All sounds reasonable; but imagine that it is a cold wet day, you are wearing gloves, and about to start a race. Scrolling and tapping successfully is difficult with gloves and worse in the rain. All the above is fiddly, when what you want to do is just start the workout and get on with the race.

GPS accuracy I found not very good, especially early on when I had an iPhone SE. It would consistently under-report the distance so that a 5K race showed as 4.8K, for example. Apple Watch has GPS on board but version 7 and earlier use the GPS on the iPhone to save battery, when available. I replaced the iPhone and accuracy improved, so perhaps I was unlucky, but I still noticed anomalies from time to time. In fairness, it can be difficult with things like trail running under trees and so on.

Annoying bugs include the watch starting and ending run segments for no reason I could see, music volume resetting after a pace announcement, music playback occasionally not starting, and worst of all, the workout ending before the end of a race despite turning off the auto workout start and stop features (which never work reliably). Most of the time it worked but I never felt I could completely trust it.

Battery life is an issue. If you leave the default of the display being always on, the Watch 7 will barely last a day, and less than that if you run with music. It will do a half marathon if you start with a good charge but not a full marathon (not that I have done one); but I did find it running out of charge when training towards the end of the day. I gave up on sleep tracking because it was easiest just to stick the watch on the charger all night; with a bit of discipline you can charge it before heading to bed but of course that will mean it is not fully charged the next morning. I set the display to be off by default which improves matters a lot.

Most runners wear other types of watch, the most common being a Garmin. In January this year I decided to try a Garmin and got a Forerunner 265, a mid-range model.

Garmin differences and advantages

Garmin Forerunner 265

The Garmin has a button top right labelled Run. Press it and it searches for GPS; when found it goes green. Press it again and the run starts. Press it again and the run stops. It is easy to operate even with gloves and in rain; and touch control is disabled during workouts so there is no risk of inadvertent taps – which are a possible cause of some of the Apple Watch issues.

The second big improvement with the Garmin is the battery life, which is around a week. That means I can track my sleep and the watch is ready for a marathon (even though I am not). Battery life does reduce if used intensively, for example with GPS and music, but still a vast gain over Apple Watch.

Music is a bit of an issue on the Garmin if you use Apple Music, since it is not supported. The only solution is the old-school method of copying MP3s to the device. On Apple Garmin makes this difficult by insisting you use Garmin Express, which only recognizes the “iTunes” library, now Apple Music. I still have a ton of CDs ripped to FLAC and my solution is to select some FLAC files, copy them to a temporary location, convert them to MP3 (I used ffmpeg), add them to the Apple Music library, copy them across with Garmin Express, then remove them from the Apple Music library. There is probably an easier way.

On the plus side, music playback works really well and I do not get the volume issues I had with Apple Watch. Tracks are shuffled by default though the algorithm seems not quite as good as on Apple Watch, and tracks can repeat too soon. There is no auto-start. Controlling music is easy: just hold down the bottom left button and the music screen appears. As with Apple Watch, you get pace and distance announcements as well as music.

Fitness statistics are better on the Garmin. V̇O2 max and heart rate zones is an interesting one. V̇O2 max is an interesting statistic but not essential to know, but heart rate zones are important to training. All these figures depend on the “Maximum heart rate” (MHR) which is traditionally calculated as 220 minus age. However this formula is a crude way of calculating MHR as it assumes everyone is roughly the same, which is not the case.

Apple Watch gives you the option to enter your own MHR rather than use the formula. However it’s not that easy to find out and will change over time so that is not ideal.

The Garmin though will auto-detect your MHR which strikes me as a better approach. According to the docs:

Auto Detection can calculate your maximum heart rate value using performance data recorded by the watch during an activity. This value may differ from an observed lower value recorded by your watch as the feature can determine a different value based on a proprietary algorithm.

In my case I seem to have a higher than average MHR and as a result the Garmin is giving me more plausible data for heart rate zones and V̇O2 max. Note though that smartwatches are not reliable for this and as the Garmin docs also say “the most accurate method to measure your maximum heart rate is a graded maximum exercise test in a laboratory setting.” There is also a suggestion for calculating it with a running test.

I still think the Garmin auto detection is preferable to the Apple Watch approach. In practice the Garmin has given me a higher figure for both V̇O2 max and MHR.

The Garmin is more pro-active than Apple Watch in assessing your fitness and making recommendations. There are features like Training Readiness, Stress measurement, Body battery, and more. When you start a run, the Garmin will recommend a training run or recommend that you rest instead (you can disable this feature if you prefer). The Garmin will also assess the Training Effect of a run, divided into aerobic and anaerobic impact scores. Another interesting metric is recovery time which assesses how long you need to rest before another high intensity training effort. It is hard to say how reliable these various indicators are (and there are more that I have not mentioned) but I feel they have some value, and should improve in accuracy over time.

Apple Watch advantages

The Apple Watch is a general-purpose smartwatch, whereas the Garmin is a fitness watch and the Forerunner series designed specifically for running – so it is not surprising that the Garmin has advantages for runners.

The Apple Watch looks nicer and less geeky, and as you would expect integrates better with an iPhone. Features like Camera Remote are handy, as is turn by turn directions. You can dictate a message into the watch, which is not possible with the Garmin. I miss the integration with Apple Music.

Apple Watch workouts appear on the paired iPhone under Fitness. If you integrate with Strava you can choose which workouts to import from the Strava app. If you integrate the Garmin with Strava it either imports all, or none of your workouts. This is a nuisance as it clutters Strava to import every single little workout or repetition. The best workaround I have found is to import none, and then import the ones you want manually via export from the Garmin Connect web application. Another idea is to import all, and immediately delete the ones you do not want. Either way, Apple Watch is preferable in this respect.

Price-wise, a Forerunner 265 costs £429.99 which is more than a basic Apple Watch 9 at £399 and much more than Apple Watch SE at £219. The Apple Watch Ultra though, which I understand is better for fitness tracking, is much more expensive at £799. Even the high end Garmin Forerunner 965 is less, at £599.99. There are cheaper Garmins as well: the Forerunner 255 is apparently a decent choice at £299.99, with most of the features of the 265 but an inferior screen and no touch control.

Some reflections

I am writing from the perspective of a runner. I do not think you should consider a Garmin over an Apple Watch if you are not looking for a sports watch. Then again, I still feel that smartwatches have disappointing utility if you exclude the fitness/health tracking features.

That said, the Garmin does illustrate the advantages of physical buttons over touch control, and the greater efficiency of a custom embedded operating system over iOS (or strictly, Watch OS).

What is the Garmin OS? There are some clues in this 2020 interview with one of the developers, Brad Larson, who said it is “a full custom OS … OS is almost stretching it. It doesn’t support multiple processes, it does threading and memory management but it doesn’t multi-process, but that’s what’s necessary. Most of our codebase is still in C … we’ve been pushing for the UI framework which sits on top of everything to be C++.”

I do not know how much has changed since then but suspect it would be a disaster if Garmin were to adopt Android Wear OS, for example, with the inevitable bloat that would come with it.

It also seems to me that Apple could significantly improve its watch from a running perspective with a little effort, applying its corporate mind to simple things like the challenge of starting a workout in typical running conditions.

As of now, I recommend Garmin over Apple Watch for running, based on my experience.

Runbritain rankings and how they work

I love the Runbritain rankings, other than that the site is not very reliable, because it gives you an indication of your running performance taking into account the conditions. If you run on a muddy course for example you will probably not get a good time, but the same is true for others. The Runbritain rankings take this into account so you can still get credit for your effort, in terms of a reduced handicap. I also like that only your five best performances are taken into account, so you can run slowly with a friend and not worry about harming your handicap (if indeed you ever worry about such things).

How does it work? I found it quite confusing. There is a video explainer by Tim Grose, one of the two leads for the team at Athletics Data that developed the rankings, but even this is not super clear in my opinion. The problem I think is that the normal view in the Runbritain ranking table for an athlete gives you, aside from the race name and time, two figures, SSS and vSSS. The SSS is the “Standard Scratch Score” and measure the state of the course, where zero is pretty much perfect and anything above 4 is fairly bad. 10 is the maximum and apparently it could be slightly negative though I have never seen that.

On a 5K such as a parkrun, each point is worth about half a minute so a score of 4 would mean most people are two minutes slower than they would be on a perfect course.

Second, the vSSS or virtual Standard Scratch Score shows how well you performed; this can be negative. More on this later.

These two figures though do not show you how the handicap is calculated. Handicaps run from maybe -10 (the lowest currently is -7) up to 54, based on golf handicaps, where lower is better. Imagine that you run a 5K parkrun in 25 minutes. This performance represents a basic handicap of 19.3 before adjustment, a figure calculated from senior age gradings but without looking at your age. Runbritain handicaps do not take account of age; they are purely about how fast you are in absolute terms. The exact table is not given though you could easily work it out.

This handicap is then adjusted based on two things, the SSS and the time penalty. The time penalty starts at -1.5 and gradually increases. To give an idea, an event one year ago has a time penalty of 2.5. So if you ran a 5K parkrun in 25 minutes today, and the SSS was 2.0, that would give you a handicap of:

19.3 -2.0 -1.5 = 15.8

If that event were a year ago it would come out at:

19.3 -2.0 + 2.5 = 19.8

Your final handicap is the average of your best 5 handicaps after adjustment.

Since the vSSS is not part of this calculation, why is it shown? Well, it is kind-of part of the calculation because of the way SSS is calculated. Runbritain rankings does not go round inspecting each course and judging its condition. Rather, its algorithm looks at the results and at how each athlete did versus their best time (best handicap). This figure is called MySSS. So if you equalled your best time it would be zero, if you improved on it (PB or Personal Best) it would be negative, and if you ran slower than your PB it would be positive.

The algorithm looks at the MySSS for all the athletes and the middle one (median) becomes the SSS. Then your vSSS is your MySSS less the SSS.

There may be some slight inaccuracies in the above description but I believe the gist of it is correct. Grose refers to things like “mildly progressive” that suggest some small further adjustments.

Any flaws in this approach? I can think of a few. One is that athletes tend to perform worse as they age, so their performance versus their best time will likely widen as the date of that “best time” recedes into the past. I am not sure that Runbritain rankings takes that into account and if it does, Grose does not mention it.

Another is that there are many reasons for slower performance that are not to do with course conditions, such as illness, parkrunning with a pram, tailwalking (going last to sweep up any runners who have difficulties), and more. This presumably is why Runbritain rankings uses the median MySSS and not the mean, to calculate the SSS, but it will never be perfect.

A third issue is that parkrun is not a race – well, some treat it as a race and try for their best time, others more as a social event with dogs, prams, and chatting to a friend as they run. Nothing wrong with either approach, but that will impact the SSS and implies that someone who tries their hardest in a parkrun may have too low a handicap.

Despite imperfections though the system does work and I find it reassuring, after getting a slow time in bad conditions, that the Runbritain rankings view may show it in a more positive light.

A year of running

I am not sure exactly when I became a runner, nor for how long I will be one. But I am sure that when I think back over 2023 from a personal point of view, running is the first thing I think about.

Pic courtesy of Microsoft Paint Cocreator AI

Most of us discover the need for exercise at some point in our lives and for years I have been in the habit of doing a short daily workout, hardly even a workout, but based on the old 5BX plan which takes all of 11 minutes. 5BX includes running on the spot which is effective but quite boring. I replaced it with going out for an actual short run and omitting the jumping jacks.

Then a couple of things conspired to persuade me to do more running. It was partly a side-effect of lockdown, when my wife who was on furlough did the NHS Couch to 5K programme which was followed by an addiction to Parkrun, free 5K runs which take place every Saturday morning at numerous locations around the UK and some worldwide.

Second, an event called the Winchester Half Marathon passes our house and I found myself thinking that I would like to do it myself.

I decided that I might as well join in with the Parkrun and soon enjoyed the challenge of trying to improve my time week by week. That began in July 2022.

I was enjoying it enough that in April 2023 I booked myself into the Winchester Half for September. That gave me 6 months to train, more than enough. I increased my daily run to a 15 minute hilly run three times round the block near my home. I started doing a long run on Sunday mornings, working up from 8K to 10K to 12K and up to 20K, just short of the half marathon distance.

The Winchester Half is somewhat hilly so I booked for the flatter New Forest Half Marathon earlier in September as a practice. That went OK despite rain and I finished in 2:03:50. Winchester went a bit better and I did 1:58:27. Ambition fulfilled.

I was enjoying it too much to give up though, and since then have joined the local Winchester Running Club and booked for several more events next year. I also did the AWS re:Invent 5k in Las Vegas which was fun if a little odd in the way it was organized!

I have started running relatively late in life and wish I had done it earlier; but it is also fun to do something new. Often I meet people who tell me they also loved to run but had to stop due to injury, sometimes knees, sometimes something else. I do not think running is risk-free but I am convinced that it is more likely to do good than harm. I have just read Daniel Lieberman’s book Exercised; Lieberman is a professor of biological sciences and writes that “the negative effects of too much exercise appear to be ridiculously less than the negative effects of too little.”

Even the risk to knees is not clear-cut. “Physical activities like running that load joints repeatedly and heavily do not cause higher rates of osteoarthritis and may sometimes be protective,” writes Lieberman, referencing a 2008 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

There are consequences though. I have lost weight. My resting heart rate has slowed. And it is time-consuming, especially if one trains for the longer distances.

I realise though that I may not always be able to run. That for me is all the more reason to run while I can.

The AWS re:Invent 5K run 2023

Sunrise over Las Vegas – at the re:Invent 5K run 2023

It happens that, a little later in life than most, I have taken up running, and during the recent AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas I was one of 978 attendees to take part in the official event 5K run.

If there were around 50,000 at the conference that would be nearly 2% of us which is not bad considering the first coaches to the venue left our hotel at 5.15am. The idea was that you could do the run and still make the keynote I guess – which I did.

I would not call myself an experienced runner but I have taken part in a few races and this one seemed to have all the trimmings. The run was up and down Frank Sinatra Drive, which was closed for the event, and the start and finish was at the Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay. Snacks and drinks were available; there was a warm-up; there was a bag drop; there was a guy who kept up an enthusiastic commentary both for the start and the finish. The race was chip timed.

We started in three waves, being fast-ish, medium, and run/walk. I started perhaps optimistically in the fast-ish group and did what for me was a decent time; it was a quick course with the only real impediments being two u-turns at the ends of the loop.

Overall a lot of fun and I am grateful to the organisers for arranging it (it does seem to be a regular re:Invent feature).

Here is where it gets a bit odd though. The event is pushed quite hard; it is a big focus at the community stand outside the registration/swag hall and elsewhere at the other official re:Invent hotels. It is also a charity event, supporting the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. All good; but I was surprised never to be officially told my result.

I was curious about it and eventually tracked down the results – I figured that with chip timing they were probably posted somewhere – and yes, here they are. You will notice though that no names are included, only the bib numbers. If you know your bib number you can look up your time. This was mine.

It seems that AWS do not really publish the results which would have disappointed me if I had been the first finisher who achieved an excellent time of 16:23 – well done 1116!

I can’t pretend to understand why one would organise a chip-timed race but then not publish the results. Perhaps in the interests of inclusivity one could give people an option to be anonymous but for most runners the time achieved is part of the fun. I think we were meant to be emailed our results but mine never came; but even if I had received an email, I would like to browse through the full table and see how I did overall.